Meet the Biographer: Sy Montgomery

sycheetahA prolific author of books about animals for adults and children, Sy Montgomery has delved the secrets of tarantulas, pigs, tapirs, snow leopards, and kakapo parrots. She has also penned a biography of animal scientist and autism advocate Temple Grandin for young readers. Recently, she published Chasing Cheetahs, a book about the Cheetah Conservation Fund’s latest research (CCF), its founder Laurie Marker, and Montgomery’s experiences at CCF’s center in Namibia. This week, she took time away from her latest research to discuss her encounters with the world’s fastest cat.

Kidsbiographer: Chasing Cheetahs isn’t just a collection of stunning wildlife photos; it contains complex information about ecosystems and genetics. What sort of background research – apart from visiting CCF’s center – did you do to write the book?

Sy Montgomery: Most of the research for this book, as with our others, was actually done on site, largely because we are documenting science as it is actually being done and it’s often the first of its kind! We spent about 2 weeks in Namibia with Laurie Marker and her staff, feeding and exercising their resident cheetahs, tracking cheetahs with radio telemetry, and mounting camera traps to capture images of wild cheetahs. Our visit included several afternoons and mornings in CCF’s genetics lab while geneticist Janine Fearon and master’s student Lucia Mhuulu were analyzing samples we had collected with the help of cheetah scat-finding border collie, Finn. We also had the pleasure of working with CCF chief ecologist Matti Tweshingilwa Nghikembua, accompanying him on an animal survey during a game drive, and a survey of “play trees” from which cheetahs survey their surroundings and leave messages for one another in scent. Nothing could have better illustrated the dynamic ecology of the area and how any change in the animals, plants or human activity profoundly affects everything that lives there. Happily, I was well prepared for our trip to Namibia, with a broad working knowledge of how ecosystems and genetics work from my 30 years of writing about this stuff. But it also helped that before we showed up in Africa, I read a number of books and articles on cheetah biology, conservation and genetics as well as both scientific and popular articles about Laurie’s seminal work. I list some of these in the bibliography in case readers or their teachers want to know more.

Kidsbiographer: Which aspect of cheetah conservation was the most challenging to write about for middle graders?

Sy Montgomery: Middle graders are so smart and fun that writing for them is not very difficult for me. But I suppose writing about the genetics lab was the most challenging. The stuff they do in that lab is so cool that it wasn’t hard making it interesting to young readers. But I did have to explain it so they understood. Because my readers are just as smart as I am, sometimes it’s easy to forget they don’t have all the same background knowledge that I have accumulated during my 56 years. Occasionally I have to remind myself to fill in the gaps for the readers who haven’t lived as long.

Kidsbiographer: Visiting Namibia and CCF’s center must have been a memorable experience. Can you discuss the most interesting experience you had there that didn’t make it into Chasing Cheetahs?

Sy Montgomery: I could have gone on and on about how great it was to walk into an enclosure full of cheetahs and feel them purring all around me. I did describe this in the book—it feels like an ocean roaring in your chest—but I didn’t convey the sense of peace and wellbeing I felt while with these beautiful animals, bathed in their own contentment, engulfed in the sound of their breath. Just seeing them every morning was a thrill. Imagine: In the mornings, Nic and I would wake up in the bottom floor of CCF’s guest house, and just yards from our beds, cheetahs were pacing the perimeter of their large, fenced enclosure. Then along our walk to the dining area, we’d get to see more cheetahs. Everywhere you looked, there was a huge enclosure with cheetahs in it. And they were more than just beautiful, powerful cats. They were individuals who we came to know and recognize, and to a small extent, communicate with. Cheetahs, like smaller cats, purr when they are in the mood for social interaction. Those closest to our guest house—Tiger Lilly, Peter, Senay and Kaijay—would often purr at our approach. What a way to start the day!

Kidsbiographer: Chasing Cheetahs includes a chapter that constitutes a short biography of Dr. Laurie Marker, the head of CCF. How did you integrate the story of her life with information about the species she works to protect and the organization’s current efforts?

Sy Montgomery: Laurie’s life has been inextricably bound with the fate of the cheetah ever since she met her first cheetah cub when she was working at a wildlife center in Oregon three decades ago. Her story is a blueprint of how we save what we love. Laurie only took a job at the wildlife center to raise money for the organic winery she had hoped to create. But the cheetahs stole her heart. In recounting Laurie’s biography, readers learn the scientific facts behind the cheetah’s near extinction as she was discovering it, and share, I hope, her insight—and perhaps her passion–that something had to be done to stop it—even if it meant abandoning all her previous plans and possessions and any hope of financial security. Laurie felt the animals were worth it. And today we know she was right!

Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young readers will take away from Chasing Cheetahs?

Sy Montgomery: I would hope that readers, when confronted with a terrible problem that somebody should solve, would look in the mirror and realize, as Laurie did, “that somebody was me.”

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss a current or upcoming project?

Sy Montgomery: Oh, I’d love to! Last summer, I took my book research under the sea. Working with underwater photographer, Keith Ellenbogen, I traveled to the waters of French Polynesia for another book in the Scientists in the Field series called The Octopus Scientists: Exploring the Mind of a Mollusk. We worked with a scientific team headed by an octopus psychologist. We even administered personality tests to octopuses (writing on a plastic dive slate underwater, of course!) And this summer, Keith and I will be working on The Great White Shark Scientist. Our research will include scuba diving in a shark cage so we can get inches from these powerful but shy predators for super-close up views! I can’t wait.

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